Luke struggled to get through nearly every day at his preschool. The four-year-old had difficulty sitting still and following directions, and when teachers reprimanded him, he usually responded by hitting something or someone. The more they admonished him, the more disruptive his behaviors became. Finally, the school ran out of options and suspended him.
His case is hardly unique. A 2016 survey found that U.S. preschools suspend more than 50,000 children each year. That extraordinary number illustrates a problem: too often, those who care for young children simply don’t understand the causes of early behavioral challenges — or their solutions.
I fault my own field of psychology for perpetuating outmoded notions about how to help children with behavioral challenges. Many child psychologists still believe that challenging behavior is primarily a child’s way to avoid something he doesn’t want to do, or a way of attracting “negative attention.” This statement from one child psychologist captures this fundamental misunderstanding:
“[D]ramatic displays of emotion are attempts to get out of tasks that warrant commitment, application, and effort. If their caregivers repeatedly succumb to the pressure, these kids often do not acquire the emotional self-control necessary to buckle down and do academic work independently.”
I would put it differently:
Dramatic displays of emotion are a child’s way of letting adults around her know that she is feeling challenged in her mind/body. The best thing adults around this child can do is attend to the child’s needs and use compassionate relationships to help the child figure out what she needs and how she can find her way back to a calm and alert state in order to work independently.
To be sure, children do sometimes display emotional reactions in order to avoid doing something. But I have found that intense emotional reactions rarely indicate intentional misbehavior. Rather, they are stress responses indicating a challenge in the child’s emotional and physiological ability to stay regulated in mind and body — in other words, to feel calm. Persistent behavior problems are a signal not that a child is purposefully misbehaving but rather that the child needs help.
Many of our ideas about behaviors stem from outdated models based on how animals respond to various systems of reward and punishment. Now, however, we have a much more sophisticated understanding of how the human brain works. Using simple reinforcement measures might shift a child’s observable behaviors, but what’s far more important is the child’s capacity for emotional regulation, the ability to calm down when an emotional storm arises. This ability is the foundation of mental health. The burgeoning field of affective neuroscience, which recognizes that everything we do to influence a behavior also influences emotions, supports this newer understanding.
That explains why preschooler Luke’s teachers didn’t grasp that his behaviors were a response to uncomfortable feelings deep inside his body. Luke had difficulty managing the sensations of the classroom because he experienced over-reactivity in his auditory system. This invisible stressor made it difficult for him to pay attention after a few hours in the classroom. With his sensory threshold at its limits, he felt overwhelmed by everything. That triggered his reflexive urge to flee, and when he couldn’t, he lashed out. Luke’s behavior wasn’t purposeful — it was a stress response. The more he was punished, the worse these feelings became.
Here are a few suggestions for helping struggling preschoolers:
- Shift the burden of responsibility from the child to the environment. The physical and most importantly, the relational environment should be the first thing we look at when preschoolers struggle with their emotions and behaviors. Instead of prioritizing compliance we need to ask what factors are contributing to the child’s distress.
- When using any technique to modify behavior, consider how the intervention affects the child’s ability to recover from distress and return to a calm state. Often the simple behavioral strategies used on vulnerable children can trigger increased emotional turmoil — especially when the techniques include ignoring “non-compliant” behaviors.
- Children’s psychological resilience is dependent on the strength of their primary relationships. The preschool years mark a significant challenge to children as they spend less time at home with their beloved caregivers. Preschools should prioritize loving, warm relational environments to help ease this often-difficult transition.
Luckily, Luke ended up in a classroom at a school that prioritized social and emotional learning (SEL) over simple discipline. With the help of a teacher trained in SEL, once he finally felt safe and understood, he began to thrive, was open to learning and in time his challenging behaviors decreased.
I explain how teachers and preschool providers can support children with behavior challenges in my new book.